In a damning indictment of policies pursued till now, the UNESCO’s State of the Education Report for India 2019 Children with Disabilities, points out that “among 5 year-olds with disabilities, three-fourths do not go to any educational institution. Nor do one-fourth of the CWD population aged between 5 and 19. The number of children enrolled in school drops significantly with each successive level of schooling… The proportion of children with disabilities who are out of school is much higher than the overall proportion of out-of-school children at the national level”. This does not take into account children “enrolled” but not attending school. And the suggestions made in the Draft National Education Policy — which advocates a host of regressive proposals — will only worsen the situation.
With the overwhelming thrust of the DNEP being towards commercialisation, the vast majority of disabled, who come from economically marginalised sections, stand to be deprived further. The idea to either close down or merge schools to create school complexes, which may be far away and inaccessible, will also adversely impact them.
Contrary to the understanding of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, (which the DNEP fails to even acknowledge), “access” in the Draft is still understood purely in traditional terms like provision of ramps, handrails and toilets. That access for a person with visual impairment, hearing impairment or a wheelchair user connotes different things, seems to be lost. Even in terms of physical access, reportedly, only 22.4 per cent of schools have disabled-friendly toilets and in around 20 per cent of schools where ramps are required, they are absent.
The RPD Act confers the right to “reasonable accommodation” and support systems including individualised support: Essential for children with disabilities while accessing their right to education. That the accommodation needs of a child with learning difficulty or a child with intellectual disability or autism are diverse, is not even recognised in the Draft.
“Access”, the Draft claims, is a key “guiding principle”. However, no text, Braille or audio version of the Draft has been made available, the “Accessible India” campaign notwithstanding.
The “Remedial Instructional Aids Programme” proposed in the Draft is also problematic: It is disparaging to a section of students, including the disabled, who for a variety of reasons may not be able to academically “perform” like their peers and will lead to segregation. That “students who have fallen behind” can be “remedied” with the help of unqualified and untrained “local heroes” as proposed in the Draft, is baffling.
The DNEP is silent on the concerns of disabled students in higher education. In the last academic year, Meenu Mani, a person with cerebral palsy and a wheelchair user, sought admission to MSW in Delhi University. Her request for a change of exam centre owing to its inaccessibility was conceded. However, the new centre, too, was located in a basement to reach which a staircase had to be negotiated. In another case, the JNU administration failed in providing Munesh, a visually impaired student, with prescribed texts in Braille/audio formats. It also rejected his request for the mandated scribe and forced him to write both the sessional and end-semester exams on his own.
In a study on the mental health status of school-going adolescents in North East India, published in 2017 in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry, it was found that nearly one tenth of the participants had some mental health issues. A class 10 student was found dead inside the washroom of a south Kolkata school in June this year. The suicide note left behind indicates that she was depressed and facing a lot of pressure. A few days later, elsewhere in Kolkata, an engineering student attempted suicide. Unfortunately, the DNEP underplays the magnitude of the problem. It limits itself to providing counsellors in schools (whose job is not restricted to dealing with mental health issues alone).
The Draft presumes that since the government has labelled the disabled as “divyang” and bestowed them with divine powers, its duty is over. The DNEP fails on all the three parameters of sabka saath, sabka vikas and sabka vishwas.
The writer is general secretary, National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled
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